The need for more courtroom space was a powerful driver behind the campaign to renovate and expand Albemarle County facilities in downtown Charlottesville.
That projected need in turn triggered a lengthy and sometimes edgy set of negotiations between the county and the City of Charlottesville. The county wanted certain concessions, including access to adequate nearby parking, if it were to keep its courts downtown, officials said.
Merchants wanted the courts to stay downtown as a business generator. Lawyers and social service agencies wanted the courts to stay downtown so that they could operate more efficiently and not have to race back and forth between two geographically separated court systems; that efficiency also worked to the public’s advantage, too, with courts, service agencies and other government offices located conveniently near each other.
In the end, Charlottesville decided to locate its general district court in the same building as Albemarle’s and agreed to provide parking. The latter promise helped propel plans to build a new parking garage on nearby Market Street — which some say was needed already, apart from any expanded courtroom usage. But it was an unpopular decision with activists who want to see the city discourage the use of automobiles rather than further accommodate them.
Under the 2018 decision — the result of nearly 20 years’ worth of study — Charlottesville’s Levy Opera House would be redeveloped and an addition built to house Albemarle’s commonwealth’s attorney offices and serve as general district courts for city and county. There would have been three courtrooms — two for the county and one for the city — plus a shell space for future expansion. (Albemarle is also renovating its current courts complex to serve as the Albemarle County Circuit Court.)
Now comes word that caseloads haven’t risen as much as predicted. For city and county combined, the new estimates are 63% lower than previously expected. Those figures are based on 2019 figures as compared to 2015 projections. The downward trend was “sustained,” the analysts said.
As a result, the building now will have two courtrooms and two hearing rooms. Courtrooms will be larger than originally envisioned.
The differences aren’t solely about caseload numbers, however. Designers say these changes also will create a more modern, efficient and streamlined facility, providing technologies and improved functionality that judges and clerks said were important to them.
The new analysis doesn’t also take into account more recent changes in crimes or civil cases resulting from COVID. Some sociologists suggest that society might be years recovering from the mental and emotional stresses imposed in 2020 by the pandemic, which might affect crime rates in the future as well.
So, because of the anomalous year we’ve just had and the prospect of its lingering effects, court planners would be wise to program in some flexibility in amount and use of space: Caseloads could jump again just as quickly and unexpectedly as they recently declined.
Opponents of the new parking garage may see the newly reduced caseload numbers as a justification for similarly reducing downtown parking plans. But the connection between the two isn’t that linear; it involves complex negotiations and cooperation between city and county, while parking access in general is a critical issue that also affects the livelihoods of downtown businesses and professionals.
Charlottesville might benefit from a broader debate about traffic, transit and other transportation issues and how far it wants to go to accommodate people who arrive by car. But people who use courts and related facilities often must arrive by car, because other options are simply too scarce and inconvenient.
If the city wants to keep the county’s courts, it must provide parking for those people who are obligated to come to the city for their transactions.